Though the area we call Stepney nowadays is quite small, it was once a manor that covered most of what’s now the East End.
Perhaps Stepney’s problem is that the smaller neighbourhoods within it became districts in their own right, so we no longer consider Whitechapel, Mile End and Limehouse to be parts of Stepney, as they originally were. In medieval times, Stepney was even bigger: its “vill” (Anglo-Saxon parish-like division) extended all the way up to Hackney, and largely consisted of a manor belonging to the bishops of London. Even when the parish of Stepney was defined in 1703, it still included Hackney, Shoreditch and Poplar, and crossed the River Lea to take in West Ham.
Only gradually did those places break off to form their own parishes, but Whitechapel, Mile End, and Limehouse (London’s original Chinatown) remained part of Stepney when it became a metropolitan borough in 1900. The church whose bells say "When will that be?" is St Dunstan's off Stepney High Street, which was founded in the tenth century, although the current building dates only from the fifteenth (with a few thirteenth-century bits). In the Blitz, the area was heavily bombed, and the first V1 rocket of the Second World War hit Grove Road railway bridge in Mile End just a week after D-Day in 1944, killing six people, including a young mum and her baby.
Stepney was originally Stybbanhyth, or Stybba’s Hythe, a hythe being a landing place, and Stybba presumably being a local Anglo-Saxon landholder. The original hythe is thought to have been at Ratcliff, near where Ratcliff Cross Stairs now are; when the area was still largely marshland, this was one of the few solid landing places on the Thames east of London Bridge. Mile End on the other hand, was the end of the first mile from the edge of the City at Aldgate, Limehouse was a lime oast, meaning a kiln for making quickilme, and Whitechapel was, yes, a white chapel. The chapel eventually became the church of St Mary Matfelon. Bombed out during the Blitz, its site and churchyard formed St Mary’s Gardens, now officially renamed Altab Ali Park after a young Bangladeshi Londoner killed just next to it in an infamous 1978 racist murder.
In the nineteenth century, Whitechapel was a byword for poverty and deprivation. The poor women murdered by Jack the Ripper, often described as “prostitutes”, were in fact not all sex workers, but extreme poverty forced some of them on occasion to make ends meet however they could. An immigrant neighbourhood, created by Huguenot refugees in the seventeenth century, Whitechapel and Spitalfields became the centre of London’s rag trade, and home to successive waves of Jewish and then Bangladeshi immigrants. Symbolic of that history, the Jamme Masjid mosque on the corner of Brick Lane and Fournier Street was famously a Huguenot church, then a synagogue, now a mosque.
One well-known local resident was Joseph Merrick, the Elephant Man. Merrick suffered from huge overgrowths of body tissue, possibly caused by a genetic condition called Proteus syndrome, which gave him a deformed appearance and significant disabilities. Abandoned by his family and with no other source of income, he was exhibited in a freak show at what is now 259 Whitechapel Road, but was rescued by Frederick Treves, a surgeon at the London Hospital, just across the road, who arranged for him to live at the hospital. Merrick’s condition continued to worsen, however, and he died in 1890, aged just 27. John Hurt played him in David Lynch’s 1980 film, The Elephant Man.
Stepney was the scene of two famous battles (and we don't mean pubs). The Battle of Stepney, more commonly known as the Siege of Sidney Street, involved a gang of armed robbers, who were Latvian immigrants, mostly Jewish, and usually described as being anarchists, although in fact at least some of them were Bolsheviks. In an attempted heist at Houndsditch in December 1910, they shot three police officers dead and seriously injured two others. One gang member died in the botched robbery, three were subsequently arrested, and in early January, police tracked two other gang members to 100 Sidney Street. They evacuated the rest of the building and besieged it, exchanging fire with the robbers. The building eventually caught fire and the robbers were killed. The then Home Secretary, Winston Churchill, personally took part in the siege.
The other famous local battle was the 1936 Battle of Cable Street. In those days London’s most visible immigrant community were Jews, and Stepney was London’s main Jewish area. The far-right party of the time, the German-funded British Union of Fascists, organized a march through the neighbourhood to intimidate them. Britain’s Jewish establishment, in the form of the Board of Deputies and the Jewish Chronicle, told the local Jewish community to stay away, but the Cockney Jews resolved to block the Fascists. Abandoned by the Board of Deputies, they were supported by their neighbours, the local Irish community, and many thousands of sympathizers from across London. With the Spanish Civil War at its height, the anti-Fascists adopted the Spanish motto, No pasarán, meaning, “They shall not pass,” and they did not. A mural on Cable Street commemorates the battle.
Unassuming though it may nowadays appear to be, therefore, Stepney has been the scene of some of London’s most dramatic episodes. You would also be right in thinking that the 1970s feminist rock band the Stepney Sisters were from here. And Stepney is the only London district to have had a character named after it in the Thomas the Tank Engine books. Indeed, the character has one up on Thomas: unlike the Rev Awdry’s main protagonist, Stepney is actually a real locomotive (named indeed after the neighbourhood), and currently lives in retirement at the Bluebell Railway’s Sheffield Park station in Sussex.